One Church, Many Families

For 48 years, I’ve also been a part of One Church; because, if we take Jesus seriously, there is only one Church. Even so, that One Church has many different “congregations.” In my lifetime, I’ve have had the privilege of visiting, worshiping with, learning from, and speaking in countless churches.  Some have been in the midwest, some in the south, and some in the east. I have spoken in a church where you could do attendance on both your hands, and I have prayed over Iraqi refugees in a house church in the Middle East. I have preached in a church in Ukraine (through an interpreter, thankfully), and have spoken at churches in Kentucky that delayed their services because UK basketball was on. I preached one of my first sermons in a nursing home church, and have spoken at a church that kept a Christmas tree available on stage (because you never know when you’re going to need a Christmas tree).

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Mom & Dad with some of the folks from one of my “Ten”

Of all the churches I’ve been privileged to visit, I count no less than 10 that I have been a part of; ten churches that have been, for me, family. The first two I remember are an African-American congregation in the urban northeast and a largely white, blue-collar church not far from that one. (My father preached at both, so both churches were, in essence, my first church families.) I’ve been a part of a college church, and a nursing home church. I’ve called churches “home” that are urban, suburban, and rural. In other words, I’ve gotten just a taste of the wild and wonderful diversity that is the Church of Jesus Christ. We who follow Jesus are very diverse; but in him, we are one. And that unity is vital to our identity.

How do we get there? How do we live out the unity that Jesus prayed for, and yet is so elusive? Well, the Apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 8 gives us some insight:

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints—and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us.

Paul focuses on the generosity of the Macedonians, using it as an example for those in Corinth. But it’s not simply an example for giving, it’s also an example for living. Though the Gentile Macedonians had little, they begged for the opportunity to give to the needs of their Jewish counterparts in Jerusalem. But more than money, they were sharing the “fellowship of ministry” with them.

And in 2 Corinthians 8.5, Paul says they provided a wonderful model for the rest of us. Simply put, they gave themselves to the Lord, and then to their church family in need.

This, my friends, is a perfect description of how unity happens. We give ourselves first to the Lord, and then to each other. In fact, not only is that a portrayal of how unity happens, it’s also a description of what faith looks like. To give ourselves to Jesus leads naturally to giving ourselves to each other.

In other words, unity isn’t complicated. It’s not something we finally get around to when we’ve studied for years and years. It’s what the Family of God simply IS. And DOES.

Are you united with Jesus? If so, you’re united (and working on unity) with God’s family, in all its wild and wonderful diversity.

The Meeting that Forever Changed the Church

It was a key moment for the Church. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the future of the Church hung in the balance. Decisions made at this meeting would define the Church for generations to come.

That meeting is recorded for us in Acts 15. All the leaders of the early Church were gathered to answer one question: What should be required of Gentiles who put their faith in Jesus?  Or, said another way: Do Gentile believers have to practice Jewish customs?

This was due to two realities. One: the very first followers of Jesus came from a Jewish background. So, their faith in Jesus was an outgrowth of their Jewish faith, and continued to include: Jewish circumcision, Sabbath guidelines, and food restrictions. In other words, the debate over how inclusive their faith practice would be was very much an open question, for Jewish practices kept a very clear separation between Jewish and Gentile life.

In Acts 15, the early Jewish Christian leaders gathered to wrestle with this reality. In that meeting, Peter gets up, and say: GOD chose to use me to speak the word of the Gospel to the Gentiles. HE was the one to give them the Spirit, just as He gave us. And then Peter says: How could we put a yoke on them that we ourselves have not been able to carry? For the bottom line is this: They will be saved the same way we are: By Grace.

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say: those words changed the course of the Church. Those words pointed us to the reality that it is not tradition, or religious practice, or law that saves us. That saves ANY of us. That saves ALL of us. It’s grace.

James goes on to affirm what Peter has stated, when he says in verse 14: Simon has described how God has first visited to receive from the Gentiles a people for His own name.

God has visited the Gentiles. A promise that Luke, the writer of Acts, first brings up all the way back in his gospel, in the Prophesy of Zechariah. In Luke 1.68, Zechariah describes how God has visited His people. At the end of his song, in verse 78, Z says, “Because of our God’s merciful compassion, the Dawn from on high will visit us” (HCSB). This promise, Acts 15 now tells us, has come true for the Gentiles. God has visited them to receive them. And by describing them as a “people,” James uses the word people that elsewhere is used to describe the Jewish people of God.

Could it be ANY clearer, in this pivotal meeting of the early Church, just what God’s plan is? What is God’s desire? It is crystal clear: God has visited the people who once were not a people, and has invited them to become His people. That is what makes Christmas, Christmas. God, in Jesus, visiting us with His saving mercy – a salvation now clearly offered to everyone.

What We Can Learn from the Messiest Church in the Bible

One of my favorite books in the Bible is 1 Corinthians. It’s not my favorite to read devotionally (that would be Psalms); it’s also not my favorite because it has a grand, sweeping narrative (Colossians gets my vote); and it’s certainly not the easiest one to read. What I love about 1 Corinthians is that it is so … real. You can practically see the flesh-and-blood people behind the letter as Paul writes, with specificity, about the problems the Corinthian church faced.

I love 1 Corinthians because it reminds me that faith and church are not always simple and straightforward; sometimes, in fact, they get quite messy. In 1 Corinthians, I get to see that just because a church makes it in the Bible doesn’t mean they have their stuff together any more than we do.

But in a church that has some real issues, like sexual infidelity, disunity around communion, and questions about the resurrection – in other words, real stuff – I am amazed that nowhere in 1 Corinthians does Paul challenge the elders to step up and get things under control. I’m not sure why that is, but the result (at least, in part) is that the folks who make up the Corinthian church need to take responsibility for who they are, and how they live out their faith.

Which leads me to think that, as important as leadership in the church is (and I think it’s very important), equally important is the responsibility we all have to walk faithfully – and live out our calling as followers of Jesus, together.

In light of all of this, it’s also interesting to me that Corinth is the only NT church where tongue-speaking is mentioned (and maybe even used?). Corinth is also unique in regard to the visible demonstrations of the Spirit through things like miracles and healings. At the same time as they had all of these dramatic spiritual manifestations, they were a mess (see above). And so, in 1 Corinthians, Paul challenges them to stop worrying about the dramatic, and focus on the daily.
We see that in 1 Corinthans 11-14, the longest block of material in the New Testament that describes early Christian worship. In this section, Paul talks about:
  • a proper communion approach (including revolutionary ideas like: Wait for each other, and: Don’t get drunk);
  • love (not just for weddings, love also works very nicely in church);
  • men and women prophesying (though we often focus on the head-covering element, to me, the more fascinating reality is that men and women are prophesying in church).

The involvement of all of the Corinthians in worship then comes into clearer focus in chapter 14 – where Paul challenges the Corinthians on their desire to speak in tongues. Glossolalia (tongue-speaking) is something no one can understand, yet it is a dramatic and noticeable gift – so, apparently, many of the Corinthians were clamoring for it. Instead, Paul challenges them to seek to prophesy.

As I’ve shared in my most recent sermon, I see prophesy as a message of the moment; that is: what does God want to say to these people, right now? Prophesy can have a future element, but the focus of it is to point people to how they should live, right now.

And apparently, Paul believes that all people in the church can share in this: You can all prophesy one-by-one, Paul says, so that all may learn and be encouraged (1 Cor 14.31, RSV). In fact, when the church came together, Paul says: Each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation (1 Cor 14.26).

So, for me, this means: leadership is important, but ALL of us should take responsibility for making sure we know truth, and teach truth, and live truth. All of us have a responsibility for building up the Body, for encouraging and challenging those who need it.

I believe that the Spirit will do what the Spirit needs to do to make Himself known. Sometimes that involves the “wow” factor: things like tongues or healings or miracles. But this can’t be the focus. In fact, it’s notable that in no other church in the NT do we read of tongue-speaking. It doesn’t mean it didn’t occur – see Acts 10.46 and 19.6, the only other 2 clear cases of “glossolalia” that I can find in the NT. But what Paul hints at to the Corinthian church, he makes clear to the Galatian church: that the clearest evidence of the Spirit is fruit – beginning with love, and ending in self-control.
In other words, the Church needs strong leadership and, sometimes, a dramatic expression of the presence of the Spirit. But what helps the Church to be what it is called to be, year after challenging year, is faithful people, faithfully walking in love, and patience, and kindness, and self-control – as they use their gifts to build up the Body.
So, pray for your church leaders, but also pray for yourself – that where you need to speak, you’ll speak. Where you need to encourage, you’ll encourage. Where you need to admonish, you’ll admonish. And make sure to do it all in the name and the power of love. For the sake of the Church.

Some thoughts on racism & prejudice

Jesus said: The poor you will always have with you. He’s right. But that also makes me wonder: What else will we always have with us in this life? If you took that phrase, and put a __________ in place of the word poor, how else could you begin this sentence:

___________ you will always have with you.

Here are some words that I think fit that space:

  1. Greed
  2. Gossip
  3. Grief
  4. Girls (That’s a good thing, especially since I’m married to one. And have two who call me Dad. And who, one day, will give me grandkids. Hey, that’s another really good G.)
  5. Grace (Thank God … Hey, there’s another really good one that also fits in the blank.)
  6. Gratitude
  7. Grumpiness (for those who choose not to cultivate item #6)
  8. Generosity (for those who DO choose to cultivate item #6)
  9. Government (That’s a good thing, right? Right?)
  10. Glasses (for me, at least)

There are a lot of things we will always have with us in this life. And that’s just 12 things that start with G. Some good. Some bad. Some, somewhere in between. We could fill that blank with a LOT of things, and we could make this blog very long. But let me just add one more thing we will always have with us in this life: Racism.

I wish it weren’t so. I wish that we could look forward to the day when racism would be done away with in this age where we live. But we can’t – because even though most people would run from the term, and a large majority of people have no desire to be racist, it will persist, for 2 reasons.

One, we are a people beset by sin. And sin is certainly not getting less, but more. And racism is sin.

Two, even those of us who would (appropriately) run from the label of racist, struggle with Racism’s cousin, Prejudice. And the truth, as I see it, is that prejudice is a part of every human heart.

Why? Because prejudice happens when I pre-judge someone. Before knowing them, or even knowing much about them, I am pretty good at subtly evaluating them, and making a judgment about them. In other words, pre-judging them – showing prejudice.

Let me go on to say that I don’t believe that all pre-judging is wrong. The truth is: all of us make quick decisions about people, based on little information. For me, the issue isn’t that we pre-judge; it’s what we DO with what our mind is telling us about that person, or that group, that we are assessing.

For example, I can look at you and decide that because you  (again, fill in the blank):

  • are old
  • are young
  • have long hair
  • have white hair
  • wear ripped jeans
  • wear an $800 suit
  • speak Spanish
  • speak poor English
  • don’t speak much at all

…you’re not like me, or you ARE like me – and then make decisions accordingly.

In other words, prejudice evaluates people on their differences. Racism, then, is one way we might choose to treat the person based on those differences. You see, I can’t help but notice what makes you different from me. But I can choose how I act (or not) on those perceptions.

There is NO doubt that Jesus came to set aside our differences. Not ignore them, but recognize them – and in the midst of them, call us to a unity we would never have on our own. At the very heart of the Good News of Jesus is that ALL are invited to drink of the water of life. In fact, as Travis & Dena Hurley point out in a very helpful article: inclusion of Gentiles in the family of God is at the very heart of the Gospel. Jesus didn’t come simply to invite individuals to receive His grace; He deliberately came inviting Jew & Gentile, slave & free, male & female, old & young, black, white and brown to experience His grace –together. In other words, Jesus invites us to look beyond our prejudices, and choose to welcome, and love, those who are different. And because the Spirit is at work, He brings us together, differences and all, and makes us one.

Sadly, racism will always be a reality in this world, because sin will always be a reality. But at the very center of the Church’s calling is to live another way, to BE another way; to allow the Spirit to lead us not to be defined by what separates us, but what unites us; to continue to grow in Gracism, not Racism – even as we look forward to The Day when all sin, all division, all racism will be done away with. Forever.